Chapter 23 : twenty-three
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Not only would it be a tough team battle, it would also be an individual challenge for me. I’d played well enough against Tamsin Robins and Jeremiah McLaggen when we’d played the Tornados. Now was my chance to face the other two England incumbents. There was more pressure on me to shine, given that Wadcock was only the reserve – and that Demelza Robins was present at this match.
She’d turned up at the ground fairly early – luckily for us this was a home game, so at least we’d a small advantage there – and took a seat next to Mum. I took the hint and left, not wanting to make conversation awkward. They got on fairly well, having played together at Hogwarts, not to mention all the times they’d come across each other in their respective professions – Mum was usually the reporter sent to cover England business. I knew my presence would change the dynamic of their conversation from a chat between old friends, to a discussion with a Quidditch player’s mother, which was unlikely to help my cause.
For the first time in a long time, I was nervous. I hadn’t even been nervous before the Tornados game in which the stakes had been high. Demelza’s presence made it all seem real. The squad would be announced at the end of the month, after the second block of games, and twelve weeks after that the World Cup began.
Although twelve weeks didn’t seem very long, and the three weeks until the squad announcement seemed more like three days. I only had three matches in which to press my case for inclusion, and only four Chasers would make it. Basically, I had to usurp Wadcock, so today’s match was huge. If I played well here, and against the Harpies and the Pride, then I would have a chance.
It was a tough three games in which to showcase myself. The Harpies fielded numerous Welsh players, and the Pride’s first team included four of Scotland’s first team players, proving a tougher task than the Magpies. I preferred it this way; a trio of games against the Arrows, the Cannons and the Wasps really wouldn’t test me the way I felt I needed to be, and would certainly be less impressive to the England management. But today had to go well, or I could say goodbye to my dreams of making this World Cup.
We were a squad member down in the changing room. Keira was sitting in the stands with Demelza, fulfilling her role as England’s Beater coach. It seemed near enough pointless; Cato and Cleo were shoo-ins for the England team, and Puddlemere’s Ellis was the next best Beater in the country. It was all but guaranteed that they would fill the three Beater slots, but Keira still had to sit with the rest of the coaching squad.
Julia noticed my nerves, and sat down beside me on the bench.
“Just relax,” she said quietly. “Go out there and play your natural game. You’ve been on fire for ages now, you won’t have a problem at all. Pretend the coaches aren’t there.”
“Remember, we’re all behind you. You’ll be great; I know you will. You always are.”
Her words helped, a little.
Just before we walked out onto the pitch to start the game, Della pulled me and Ryan off to one side.
“Keep calm, and don’t let the bastards get the Quaffle,” she said.
“Nice motivational talk,” he said dryly.
“I like it. Short and sweet,” I chipped in.
“They’re good. We know that. But we also know that we can beat them. Wood’s too good to try any fancy tricks against. Let’s just go out there, and play our game. We can’t let them dictate how we play. We put them on the back foot. Alright?”
I clearly still looked nervous, as she reached out and took my hand.
“Remember, Jim, you’re not alone on that pitch. And I promise you, we will do all we can to make sure that you make that damn squad.”
I grinned, feeling a bit more confident.
After all, if I couldn’t rely on my teammates, who could I rely on?
“I don’t think I’ve ever known you to be that worried about a match,” Brigid said. She lounged across my sofa, throwing Cordelia up in the air, and catching her as she came back down, squeaking merrily.
“I guess it just hit me that there was a lot riding on it,” I shrugged.
“Well, you should worry more often, because that’s the best I’ve ever seen you play.”
We won by two hundred and thirty points. Stefan caught the Snitch, which obviously increased our points difference, but we also outscored them by eight goals, which was a lot given that we’d expected a close game.
“I was lucky, Wadcock had an off day-”
“He crumbled under the pressure. You didn’t. Don’t discredit yourself. It sounds wrong coming from you, and anyway you’re doing yourself a disservice here. Playing for England is about your mental strength as well as your talent, you know.”
“The coach seemed impressed,” Carlotta added absent-mindedly, as she flicked through my photo album from school.
Brigid and I both turned to look at her.
“How do you know that?”
“I was sitting near her and your mother,” she shrugged. “I wasn’t listening in, per se, she just wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping her voice down. Is this where you went to school?”
She held up the photo album, showing me a shot of me and Freddie fooling around in the grounds, with the castle in the background.
“Wow,” she breathed, looking back at the photo. “That must have been amazing...”
“It was alright,” I said vaguely.
“It looks incredible...” she mused, flicking through the photos.
I smiled fondly at her for a moment, then turned back to Brigid.
“So, how was the date with the Bagman?”
“You mean you haven’t asked him?” she said, eyebrows raised.
“I could have,” I reasoned, “but I had other things to worry about yesterday – like the game, and making sure he didn’t punch me in the face. But given the distinct lack of tears from you and cussing from him and considering there were no arguments between the two of you yesterday, I assumed it went reasonably well. Or, at least, that it wasn’t a trainwreck.”
She smiled slightly.
“No, it wasn’t a trainwreck. It was ... well, it was okay.”
“He’s lovely, he really is, and I did have a good time. But ... he’s my client. That makes things a bit dodgy.”
“I’m your client, and you’re round my house the day after a game, playing keepie-uppie with my pygmy puff. Heck, Ryan’s your brother. Why should it make a difference here?”
“Because Ryan’s always been my brother, and you’ve been my best friend for ten years. That’s different. With Cato, it could make things awkward. If I’d thought the sparks flew, then maybe I could try to make it work, but there’s no point in forcing something.”
I cocked my head, intrigued.
“Surely if it’s something that could make you happy-”
“I doubt it would be a groundbreaking relationship,” she said dryly, setting Cordelia down on her stomach. “Anyway, we need to talk contract extensions. Mam wanted you signed up earlier, but she had other things on her plate, and I had other clients to deal with. Basically, she wants to stick another year on it, possibly two. She wanted you signed up as quickly as possible, because she’s worried about other teams trying to sign you up once you’ve played in the World Cup, but-”
“It’s not a cert yet,” I reminded her.
“Oh, come on, after yesterday it is.” She rolled her eyes.
“And besides, I’m not interested in going anywhere else. I don’t care how much people offer to pay me. I’m not in it for the money, I just want to play Quidditch, and I’m not leaving the Falcons.”
“What if Ryan went to the Kestrels?”
I hesitated. A big part of the reason I wanted to stay at the Falcons was that Ryan – and to a lesser extent Della – played there. Away from Brigid and my family, he was my closest friend, and I’d played Quidditch with him for years.
But there were other people there too. Roxanne, Della, Klaus, Alfie, Julia, Keira...
“I’d still stay,” I said firmly. “We’re not just a team. We’re a family. And I wouldn’t leave for anything.”
I seemed to have a knack of breaking my Quidditch gloves. It was frustrating, but it was something that I’d had to come to terms with. After all, I was into my third full season. That was a lot of pairs of gloves.
I’d managed to break my eighth pair during the Puddlemere match. It had actually surprised me how long they’d lasted. I’d hoped to bribe Brigid into picking me up a pair from Quality Quidditch Supplies, but given how busy she seemed, I’d decided against it. When she was busy, she tended to get quite stressed out, and it was wise to not aggravate the issue. As such, I found myself doing my own shopping. It wasn’t so bad; it gave me another chance to look at the collection of brooms at the back of the shop.
Once I’d bought my gloves, I headed up to Uncle George’s shop, which I always visited when I was in the vicinity. This time I was halted by somebody coming in the opposite direction.
My eyes followed the sound of the voice and fell on my old Headmistress, Professor McGonagall.
“Professor,” I greeted, wondering why on earth she was in Diagon Alley. I was so used to seeing her at school, that it was odd to see her in a different environment during the school term, especially when Hogsmeade was so convenient for the teachers. Not that I expected teachers to spend all their time in the castle, but I was still curious as to what brought her here.
“I hear that the Quidditch is going well?” she said.
“Yeah, it’s pretty good.”
“And your sister, is she well?”
Despite that Lily wasn’t one of her pupils, McGonagall often asked after her when she saw me. Or perhaps it was because Lily wasn’t at Hogwarts that she asked.
“Yeah, she’s fine. Lots of sport, as usual.”
I wondered why she’d stopped me for a simple chat. I’d only generally ran into her at Hogwarts when I’d broken the rules, although admittedly that had been a rather frequent pastime of mine.
“I’ve been meaning to get in touch with you; in fact I’ve just asked your uncle if he could relay a message to you. Never mind, I’ll ask you now. I don’t suppose you know of any players who are thinking of retiring soon, do you?” she asked.
I frowned, now totally unsure what we were talking about. She surely wasn’t contemplating a change of career?
“I’m not sure. Why?”
“Madam Hooch plans on retiring at the end of the school year, and I’m struggling to find a replacement. She tells me she’ll do an extra year if necessary, but after that she definitely won’t be coming back.”
“Retiring?” I said in surprise. “But ... surely she’s not that old...”
“Potter, she taught your father how to fly,” she said wryly. “I think she’s due a quiet retirement.”
“With all due respect, Professor, you taught my grandparents...”
Luckily, she didn’t take offence at the remark.
“I’m still quite content at the school, Potter. Don’t worry yourself about my retirement plans.” She smiled. “But if you know of anyone suitably qualified who might be interested in the job, will you tell them to get in touch with me?”
“Of course I will,” I said. “There’s nothing more important than teaching the youth about our beautiful game, is there?”
“I’m glad you agree with me on such an important issue.” She sounded slightly amused. “Anyway, I wouldn’t want to keep you-”
“Professor, did you just say you were visiting my Uncle George?” I asked, curiosity getting the better of me.
McGonagall looked as though she was trying not to smile.
“Your cousin pulled off a rather impressive prank yesterday morning. Regrettably for him, it broke twenty-four school rules and I handed him a month’s worth of detentions, but it served as a remarkably effective advert for your uncle’s shop and his methods of delivering banned products into the school. I expect I’m fighting a losing battle, but I thought that I may as well try to stop him sending his products to my students.”
“And did he cooperate?”
“Do you need to ask?” She sighed. “I suppose I shall just have to grin and bear it, and hope your cousin’s next target is Sybill; that way at least I’ll get some entertainment out of it. Well, it was good to see you, Potter. Thank you for the help.”
And she was off, leaving me standing in the middle of Diagon Alley, open-mouthed with shock.
Carlotta had come to three of our four Quidditch games, only missing the one I hadn’t played in. Each Saturday, she’d turned up at my flat in plenty of time to accompany me and Mum. She’d already become wise to Mum’s timings, and had turned up early enough to have breakfast before the Puddlemere match.
I’d reminded her during the week about the Harpies match. The thought of an all-female team seemed to interest her and made her even more eager to watch this game, so I was more than a little confused when Saturday morning arrived – and she didn’t.
“Just ring her, James,” Mum sighed, having cleared up the kitchen, and the rest of my flat to boot. “We need to be going in ten minutes, we can’t just sit around waiting for her.”
“I can’t ring her, that just looks desperate-”
“No, it looks as though she said she was going to come and you’re just checking you’re not making yourself late for no reason. Come on, James, we don’t have time to debate the ins and outs of a phone call!”
I pulled a face, but picked up the handset and dialled her number.
She answered after four rings.
“Hey, are you coming today?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
“Coming to what?”
“My Quidditch game! It’s against the Harpies, remember? The all-woman team? You seemed really interested in this one...”
“Well, yes; it is a Saturday...”
“Shit, James, I totally forgot! I – I can’t, I’ve made plans with Flick for today.”
“Oh,” was all I said.
“I’m so sorry, I really am.” She sounded apologetic. “I promise I won’t forget the next one, though. Is it next Saturday?”
“It is, yeah,” I said, my voice sounding horribly flat.
“Well, I’m definitely free then, so I’ll come to that one, I promise. It’s just, this one totally slipped my mind...”
“It’s fine.” I tried not to sound too bothered. “I just thought I’d check, that’s all. Have – have fun today, with whatever you’re doing.”
“I’ll try, although I’ll just be feeling guilty now! Good luck for today, by the way. I’ll see if I can pop round somewhen tomorrow when I’m on my break, does that sound okay?”
“Yeah, that’s fine. See you then.”
Mum raised an eyebrow as I put the phone down.
“She’s not coming?”
“She forgot,” I relayed, grabbing my kit. “You’re right, we need to go, or we’ll be late...”
I wasn’t myself that game. I didn’t play badly, but it was my worst game of the season so far. Luckily we won, and none of the England set-up were there to see my poor performance, but I was still angry with myself. I was angry with Carlotta, too.
I wasn’t upset that she’d forgotten my match. That in itself didn’t bother me. It wasn’t as though I needed her at my games in order to play well. What bothered me was that eight weeks ago, she’d seemed utterly riveted by the mere idea of Quidditch. She’d been so eager to see me play, and even after my first match, she’d wanted to know when the next one was, and the next, and the next...
So it seemed odd, after such excitement, that she could suddenly forget about one of them. It suggested she wasn’t as enthusiastic as she’d been before, that the excitement was totally wearing off.
It suggested that she was getting bored of it all.
I couldn’t blame her; she’d stumbled into this expecting a short fling with a guy who frequented her nightclub, and she’d found herself learning about a totally new world. And while that must have been exciting at first, it seemed as though the challenge of keeping this – keeping us – a secret from her friends and family was getting too much for her.
I didn’t want to have her memories wiped. Right from the start, I’d been against it. But if this continued ... I couldn’t think of any other solution.
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